Last weekend (January 2006) daughter Melanie and I were strengthened and encouraged at a spiritual conference conducted in Fresno, California by The Zoe Group of Nashville, Tennessee. Speakers included John York and Gary Holloway of Nashville, Randy Harris and Mike Cope of Abilene, Texas and Leonard (Len) Sweet, who currently teaches at both Drew University in New Jersey and George Fox University in Oregon. Preacher, author and historian, Sweet is best known as a futurist who stands with one foot each in academe and popular culture to advise an emergent church of the twenty-first century (www.leonardsweet.com). Borrowing an idea from the book and movie of the same title, Sweet told our gathering that the church of Jesus Christ in America, Britain and Europe now faces “the perfect storm,” in which three threatening elements combine to present what might be its greatest challenge ever.
The three new threatening elements, Sweet explained, are aspects of a culture that is increasingly post-Christian, post-modern and post-human. Whole books are written about each point but we are limited here to a few sentences. Post-Christian refers to the fact that “Christendom” is dead — that institutional Christianity which since Constantine has exerted power, commanded respect and ensured a hearing for the church in the Western world. Now the world either despises the church or simply ignores it. Post-modern refers in part to a seismic cultural/philosophical change from a world of books, logical propositions and individualism to a world of computers, experience and global identity. Post-human involves biotechnology that result in bionic men and women but also a self-understanding as one with nature and even the cosmos.
Yet we need not despair, Sweet insisted, pointing to the Gospel story of Jesus stilling the storm. The disciples were first terrified, then awed by Jesus’ power over nature. Jesus chided them for their lack of faith. What matters most, he implied, is his own presence with them whether he quiets the particular storm or not. We must not expect Jesus to deliver us from the perfect storm coming upon us, Sweet exhorted. We must rather keep our eyes on Jesus as we go through the storm with him by our side. If we do that, we will not only survive the storm but see the work of God in the process.
To do this successfully, Sweet urged, the church must become “MRI” — missional, relational and incarnational. Missional contrasts with attractional and means we go into the world rather than try to attract the world to the church. Relational contrasts with propositional and means we influence people by caring about them instead of merely shouting truth statements at them. Incarnational contrasts with colonial and suggests a power exercised in service not in domination. It occurs to me that missional responds to what is post-Christian, relational to post-modern and incarnational to post-human. If none of these comments make much sense in this abbreviated and grossly oversimplified form, just remember this: our world is changing and we must be ready to change our way of thinking accordingly — if we are to encounter it faithfully in service to Jesus Christ our Lord.